Money is the new secret of a happy job

By Lucy Kellaway
Published: December 14 2008 19:59 Last updated: December 14 2008 19:59
Last week, I sent an e-mail to a friend who had just lost his job. “I’m so sorry,” I wrote. “Your bosses are morons to have got rid of such a genius as you. I can only suppose a queue will shortly stretch round the block as less brain-dead employers clamour to take you on. Hope you are OK.”
The e-mail was heartfelt except for one word, and that was “shortly”. I don’t expect a queue to form for my friend shortly. Even geniuses are not getting snapped up quickly – unless they happen to be security guards, social workers, accountants or teachers.
In a trice, I had a message back. He said he had had a brief panic about the mortgage and school fees but otherwise was really rather cheerful. Indeed, he was in such high spirits that he even sent me a funny anecdote*.
I could not help comparing the tone of his message with one that I got the very same afternoon from another friend who works for a company that has also been celebrating Christmas with some savage job cuts. Never, she said, had her morale been as bad. The weight of work was crippling as she was now doing the jobs of three people. There was talk of pay cuts. The office was spookily quiet, too; since most of her friends had been sacked, there wasn’t even anyone around to moan to. Worst of all was the fear that her job would be next.
It is tempting to conclude from these two messages that, if there is one thing worse for hitherto successful, well-paid people than being fired, it is not being fired. Those who have been axed don’t need to take the sacking personally, and not working in the days before Christmas can be rather jolly. Whereas for those who have not been fired, the not-so-festive season this year is an orgy of fear and drudgery.
There might be some truth in this now but it is not going to stay true for long. The grimness of the unemployed will get worse as no queues form to take them on, while the grimness of those in work will, in time, start to recede. This is not because the economy will improve – it is because the grimness itself will bring on a sounder and altogether more realistic approach to work.
Over the past decade, the rich, professional classes have developed an increasingly unhealthy attitude to their jobs. We took our jobs and our fat salaries for granted and felt aggrieved if our bonuses were not even bigger than the year before. We demanded that the work be interesting in itself and, even more dangerously and preposterously, that it should have meaning.
The result of all these demands was, of course, dissatisfaction. We had climbed to the very top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and discovered that, at the top of the pyramid, the air was very thin indeed. As an agony aunt, I found that by far the most common problem readers submitted came from rich and senior professionals who had all their basic needs more than catered for, leaving their souls in torment. Help me, I’m bored, they cried. Or, worse: what does my work mean?
In the past few months, anguish of this sort has vanished. When one’s job is at risk and one’s savings are a shadow of their former selves, the search for meaning at work is meaningless. The point of a job becomes rather more basic: to feed and house (and, at a pinch, to educate) one’s family and oneself. If we can do this, then anything we manage over and above this is a bonus. Once expectations have fully adjusted to this new reality and we see earning money as the main reason for work, greater satisfaction will follow.
Low expectations have an awful lot to be said for them. In surveys women turn out to be more satisfied at work than men, in spite of earning less for the same jobs and doing most of the work at home too. The reason is simple: women’s expectations of working life are lower. Similarly, Denmark is the happiest country in the world in spite of having a cold, dark climate and a top tax rate of 68 per cent. The stoical Danes do not expect so much of life and, expecting less, find what little they have rather nice.
Climbing down Maslow’s pyramid is painful and progress is slow. However, there is something that managers can do to make the descent a little less grim. The easiest and cheapest way of cheering up demoralised workers is to tell them that they are doing a great job. It is one of the great mysteries of office life why most managers are so resistant to this when it does not cost one penny. Here is all they have to do: pick people off one by one (to do it in groups is lazy and quite spoils the impact) and say thank you and well done, and look as if they mean it.
* For anyone who needs further cheering, here is the anecdote of my sacked friend, who heard it from someone who works at the school that Paul McCartney’s child attends. At a recent parents’ evening, Heather Mills was told that her daughter was rather good at the recorder. Ms Mills apparently replied: “She gets that from me.”
lucy.kellway@ft.com
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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008